Biologists test wastewater at Hope College to detect COVID-19

Ottawa County

HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Biologists at Hope College in Holland are testing wastewater for traces of COVID-19. 

The school welcomed back about 4,000 students and faculty for in-person instruction on Monday. Prior to that, they required everyone take a pre-arrival COVID-19 test. The school identified several positive cases and asked those students to isolate at home. 

The school says they are now using what gets flushed down toilets to keep an eye on cases on campus. 

“If you or I had COVID-19 or Sars COv-2, part of our symptoms would be that we would be shedding virus and part of that is in feces,” said Dr. Aaron Best, who is the chair of the Biology Department at Hope Collge. 

Best, who is leading the wastewater testing charge, say they started the testing this week. 

“It’s as comprehensive as one can get. This allows you to test a large population with a small number of samples. It allows you to do it at a frequency that you couldn’t do otherwise, and you don’t have to test individuals,” he added. 

Best says the testing takes place at nine specific points every morning. A team heads to a manhole and takes a sample of material from the sewer. That sample is then taken to a lab, cleaned up and tested for COVID-19.

While the team is still working on the logistics of the project, they say they hope to be able to turn results in 24 hours. 

“Wastewater testing is an approach that will allow us to monitor many people with a very small number of tests and so the idea is that it’s a surveillance mechanism and you can (watch) a community. In this case, the community is Hope College,” Best said. 

Best says each sample represents about 200 to 250 students. Hope College is doing this in addition to testing 1% of their student population every day at random. These tests are done the traditional way with swabs or a spit test.

The school hasn’t identified any cases from wastewater testing yet, but say they hope the information will help when planning for the future. 

“None of us know how long this pandemic is going to go. We don’t know when a vaccine is going to be produced that is actually widely disseminated, and so it could be a year, easily. Hope is really taking this as a forward-thinking piece,” Best said. 

Hope College says they plan to continue testing 1% of their students at random in addition to the daily wastewater testing through the end of the year. 

The school says if they begin to see traces of the virus spike in certain areas via wastewater tests, they will be able to shift their random testing efforts to those portions of campus to identify specific cases. 


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